Review: The new Specialized S-Works Recon Lace off-road shoe
After a bit of a hiatus, Specialized has a new lace-up off-road shoe on the market, featuring the same high-performance sole used elsewhere in its S-Works offering, a laced closure, and at least one rather loud colour scheme. Here are our early impressions.
Cycling shoes continue to get increasingly high-tech, sprouting sophisticated dials and directional textiles, sole stiffness that is dialled up to 11 (and then a couple more), and ever-more feathery weight.
But even amongst all of that, there’s still something to be said for a simple, reliable laced closure.
- What it is: Lace-up version of Specialized’s range-topping S-Works Recon gravel/MTB shoe
- Features: Laces (… obviously), atop a supple upper and a super stiff sole.
- Weight: 571 g for a pair (size 43, with insoles)
- Price: US$325 / AU$500 / €330
- Highs: Road-shoe like stiffness, very low weight, high performance
- Lows: Expensive, slow to put on, sole gets scuffed quickly, breathability isn’t stellar
Laces have been undergoing something of a renaissance since Giro (re-)popularised lace-ups back in 2012, and over the years since, most mainstream brands have dipped their toe in.
Specialized – a company that has been around since laces were popular the first time around – was one of them, with a mid-range first-wave gravel shoe and a high-end road shoe called the Sub6. But then, for a couple of years, there was a lull.
Specialized are back in the lace-up game with the S-Works Recon Lace – a high-end, high-performance laced version of its range-topping Recon gravel and cross-country shoe.
Available globally as of now, the Recon Lace introduces another gasp-inducingly-priced option into Specialized’s off-road shoe line, slotting in alongside the recently-released, ultra-lightweight S-Works Exos Evo and the well-loved S-Works Recon.
There’s a clear family resemblance across the three aforementioned models, which are differentiated by the upper and the closure method. But in any family, there are extroverts and introverts.
At least based on the colours offered, the Recon Laces are the ones that want to party.
I’ve had a set of the new Recon Laces in for a few days, in which time I’ve been able to get out for a few shorter rides and one longer one. My colleague James Huang’s pair were a bit slower in the post and he’s yet to get a spin in them yet (although he’s had plenty of experience with other Specialized models, as well as, well, pretty much everything else).
So: it’s fairly early days. But there’s still stuff to say.
Getting to know the Recon Lace
In recent years I’ve spent thousands of kilometres in Rapha’s Explore lace-ups and PowerWeave models, Giro’s Empire VR90s and Privateers, and Quoc’s Gran Tourers. Most of those, you’ll note, are lace-ups, sitting across a spectrum from recreationally-focused all the way up to gravel- or cyclocross-race shoes. The S-Works Recon Laces are a leap in the performance direction – lighter and stiffer and with greater pedalling efficiency than any of the above.
Having previously been a bit ho-hum about the usefulness of marginal gains in sole stiffness for my ambling style of riding, I was a bit surprised to find myself eating my words: they are noticeably more direct when pedalling, especially when stomping down out of the saddle. For the few rides I got in before publication, that added a welcome hint of spice to my riding.
There are a few parts of the shoe that play a role in that, but the sole is the main protagonist. The Recon Lace wears the same sole as its S-Works stablemates, a full-carbon number with a woven finish. It’s the stiffest sole in Specialized’s off-road repertoire, with a stiffness rating of 13.0, giving the ride feel of a performance road shoe (although Specialized’s latest and greatest of those go up to 15 now, whatever that means in real terms).
It’s narrow through the mid-foot, extending up on the side to bolster arch support, and has large expanses of exposed carbon fibre that look lovely at first but are a little prone to scuffs and scratches off the bike.
Strategically placed along the sole are sections of grip, described as thermoplastic ‘pontoons’ in the section next to the cleat and ‘SlipNot’ rubber at the heel and the toe. None of these are replaceable, although Specialized says that from its experience with the long-established Recon soles, they are hard-wearing and should be good for “many seasons of wear” (which you would kinda hope, seeing what they cost).
James echoes this, but acknowledges that there is a bit of a trade-off in that the grip portions are fairly hard and therefore less grippy than some competitors (such as Rapha, which uses a very grippy but heavy natural rubber across most of its sole).
Several gravel shoes on the market currently use a mix of materials and shorter carbon sections to allow for a more natural gait when walking. These are not that type of shoe – there’s not a hint of flex, although the toe kicks up a little bit and inadvertently increases the fluidity of a step as it rolls forward. Nonetheless, if your rides incorporate long hike-a-bike sections, note that the Recon Laces are OK for walking in rather than good, and far, far better on the bike than off.
CX riders and lovers of sloppy conditions will, however, be happy to hear there is provision for replaceable toe spikes from third parties – they typically have the same thread – although the plastic nubbins that are supplied aren’t actually too bad in their own right.
The upper of the Recon Lace is constructed of the same abrasion-resistant Dyneema material as the dial version of the Recon, but with a tweaked construction. The Recon incorporates an additional panel around the toe area for a velcro strap, where the Recon Lace can be constructed of a single seamless piece. James reckons these uppers are more supple than the Boa version; I’ve only used the laced version, and think it’s quite good at conforming without hitting the heights of comfort of a knit or woven upper such as that used on my current faves, the (noticeably heavier, less spritely) Rapha Explore Powerweave.
There are a few unambiguous upsides to the Recon Lace’s upper, though. Compared to a woven upper, it’s much easier to keep clean, and also won’t get snagged on things. I was pleased to see reinforcement on the leading edge of the toe, too, which is right in the firing line of errant blackberry bushes, kicked-up gravel, and gormless log hops.
There’s a subtle honeycomb pattern to the upper, and when backlit it appears – perhaps misleadingly? – that it might be quite airy. There are also tiny laser-cut ventilation holes across the forefoot, although it seems unlikely that they’d be able to do all that much. Regardless, my testing was typically in temperatures around 5-10° C (40-50° F) so I’m obviously unable to confirm much about the hot weather performance of the shoes. If they were market-leaders in that regard I’d have expected my toes to feel noticeably breezy, however, which they didn’t.
The laces run through six pairs of eyelets, allowing the hold of the upper to be fine-tuned across the foot – a bit tighter here where the foot might narrow, a bit looser there. Lace pressure is distributed extremely evenly across the top of the foot, and the tongue is soft and well-padded enough that the laces aren’t perceptible unless you’re really cranking them down.
The top four sets of holes have metal eyelets that feel like they grip onto the laces and provide a bit of extra resistance, improving hold. Compared to the previous excursion into laces from Specialized, the road lace-up Sub6, this is a promising sign for long-term durability, eliminating the risk of tearing or stretch where the laces meet the upper. The downside is that they’re slow to put on – not just compared to a Boa dial or a velcro closure, but compared to other laced rivals, too.
The laces may be what fastens the shoe, but here it’s the heel cup that really does the lion’s share of holding the foot in place. It has a firmer grip than any cycling shoe I’ve personally tested – I’m told that it’s indistinguishable from the heel cup of other S-Works shoes – and it’s quite deep, narrow and tapers in as it rises.
The upper itself, meanwhile, is both supportive and stretch-resistant but molds around the foot. The overall fit is a bit narrower than my foot would normally prefer, but with the laces fairly loosely tightened I was able to find comfort without slopping around all over the place, largely thanks to that heel hold.
Given there’s three models sharing the same sole, two of them with the same heel-cup, it’s the closure system and upper that really differentiates them. In this regard, the Recon Lace strikes me as a kind of happy medium of them. It’s an impressively light 571 grams for a pair versus the already light Recon’s 610 grams, but has more apparent durability than the feathery Exos Evo (502 g). It’s simple and stylish, and there are fewer potential things to go wrong.
As gravel cycling diversifies into little gravelly fragments, there are bikes – and clothes, components, and shoes – to fit each of those market segments. In price and in function, the S-Works Recon Lace shoes sit squarely at the performance end of it all, albeit with a slightly more casual aesthetic.
It’s early days with these ones, and both James and myself will be putting in the kilometres/miles (select as regionally appropriate) to see where they land.
But if the shoe fits – and you prize efficiency over walkability with your high-end, lace-up gravel shoes – they seem like an appealing option.